Being Comfortable with Silence Is a Superpower
The fascinating science of silence and why it’s healthier to embrace it than fight it
I used to think he was ignoring me, or else that he just didn’t hear me, so I would repeat myself.
This “he” is my boyfriend, and almost without fail, any question I ask is met with prolonged silence. Early in our relationship, when this silent scenario played out, each second that passed absent a response would make my heart speed up and my patience level drop with a dramatic thud.
“Hello! I’m talking to you!” I would want to yell. “Bueller, why aren’t you answering?!” And then a flood of possibilities would sweep over me, each one more foreboding than the next.
Agitation can be contagious. So, when the silence became too excruciating, I’d blurt out something like, “Did you hear what I said?” And then he’d respond with equal agitation — like more silence (completely infuriating) or a curt “blurt” of his own.
Over time, I realized that my boyfriend’s silence wasn’t him dodging or dismissing my questions. It was simply him processing what I was saying, so that he could respond in a mindful and effective way.
The constant need for sound
Silence is the absence of intentional sound or purposeful quiet — and for many people it’s rather unsettling, especially for folks in the West. Research at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands found that it takes only four seconds of silence in conversation for Americans to feel more rattled, rejected, or insecure. Contrast this to another study that found that Japanese people are happy to sit in silence with others for up to 8.2 seconds. Their tolerance may not be surprising given the Japanese proverb “a silent man is the best one to listen to’ and the Japanese concept of haragei (literally meaning “belly sensitivity”), which suggests that the most effective type of communication is actually not speaking.
The reason for this cultural difference in tolerance levels may come down to America being a heterogeneous society, whereas Japan is more homogeneous. Speaking to the BBC, Donal Carbaugh, a professor of communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said…